Remember them: Captain Bill Muir – Kansas hometown boy, native son, American hero

By Ann Mah

052314-mah-Lt-Bill-Muir

A box of old mementos uncovers the war story of Bill Muir, center, a Kansas boy and American hero.

Monday will be the 146th time this nation has celebrated the lives of the brave men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. First Decoration Day, and now Memorial Day. The day of celebration has changed, but not the sincerity with which we meet to honor these fallen heroes.

What can we do to honor their sacrifice? How do we keep their memories alive? We tell their stories so they are not forgotten.

I want to share one Kansas soldier’s story. A story my sister found in an old box at an estate sale. The box was tattered around the edges, but kept for decades by a woman, Cleta Lesh, who loved this World War II soldier – Captain William Lloyd Muir of the Fifth Army under General Clark.

Cleta and William, Bill to his friends, graduated as high school sweethearts from Norton Community High School in 1936. By all accounts it was a typical rural Kansas upbringing.

In their junior year, Cleta appeared in the all-school play, taking the part of Hope Cartwright in “Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise.” Bill’s folks owned L.W. Muir Music Company in Norton. We found pictures of lovely teens in prom dresses. Enjoying watermelon in the summer.

Bill continued his education at K-State, earning a degree in business administration in 1940. Bill had reserve officer training while at K-State and so he was called to active duty in October 1941.

He and Cleta were engaged, but in times of war things have to wait. Cleta would at first wait in Norton for her Kansas hero to come home. Later she took a job as secretary to the superintendent of schools in Hays, where she waited for Bill’s return.

Bill earned the rank of first lieutenant at Camp Claiborne, La. But he wanted to go overseas. In April 1942 he went to Ireland. Bill saw parts of the world a Kansas boy doesn’t often see. He sent home souvenirs of his travels. We found an Irish linen apron, still folded in the same envelope Bill mailed it in to Cleta.

Bill trained in Ireland for the action he was soon to see with the Allied forces in North Africa. Bill was brave and a hero, and it didn’t take long for him to be singled out for special duty. Bill accompanied British troops aboard a British man o’ war and was with the first men who went ashore at Oran on Nov. 8, 1942. He was with the troops that drove the Axis forces into “coffin corner” in Tunisia. His battalion received a presidential citation for the capture of Hill 609 which was one of the turning points in the North African campaign.

We build Kansas boys with something special. Bill was cited for bravery by both the British and the Americans. While with the British forces, Bill disposed of burning ammunition during the voyage to North Africa. In April 1943, in Tunisia, he earned a Silver Star for his courage and leadership in reorganizing a group of his men who became panicky under enemy fire. Our Bill was gallant in action. He ran more than 100 yards through open territory to rally his retreating men and hold a forward infantry observation post despite heavy enemy fire.

His citation said Bill was “Meritorious and a credit to the armed forces of the United States.” And I would add, a credit to our great state and country. They say that “courage is not the absence of fear; rather it is the ability to take action in the face of fear.” That was our Bill.

It was no surprise that Bill was notified to discard the silver bar of a first lieutenant for the double silver bar of a captain.

He sent lots of pictures. He and Cleta wrote. Bill talked of the future. He traveled at first on weekend passes. He sent pictures of castles and places he promised to show her someday. He relished the sunshine of Morocco.

There were pictures of army life. Boys turning into men. Locals who shared a meal. Setting up camp. Shaving under a tree. Rations from a can. By June 1943 the cards mentioned more of the loneliness a young man feels. No time to write.

In September 1943, Bill’s mother wrote to Cleta:

“My Dear Cleta,

Here are the pictures Bill wanted you to have. He gave us no information about any of them except that the one with Col. Ward was taken the day he got his star. We think Bill looks rather thin but well …” (That’s a Kansas mom for you! Never eating enough!)

She went on to say that Bill said he had just been in town to buy Christmas presents he had mailed out that day. The stamps were from Morocco, but his mother guessed he was in Italy. Rumor was that General Clark’s army had landed in Naples.

“Bill would be in one of the worst places,” she wrote.

She had had a letter from two captains who had nice things to say about Bill. One from Kentucky had stopped to visit the other evening while his car was being repaired. He was surprised to think that Bill had made it through the last Tunisian affair, as almost all the reconnaissance officers on Hill 609 were killed. This captain said Bill’s new job was one of great responsibilities but more safe and a good place for advancement. The safe part, she said, was what appealed to her. Recent letters from Bill, she said, had spoken of what he wanted to do when he returned. For a while he had said nothing beyond the day.

“To me, that’s encouraging,” she wrote.

Bill’s last letter, she said, was dated August 31.

Then in the box we found a wedding napkin. But it said “Gay and Cleta”, not Bill. So we dug deeper and there it was. A short news item titled “Receives word fiancé killed in Italy.” Bill was killed in action on Oct. 20, 1943. No one was quite sure when Bill had returned to Italy. He had been serving as a training officer for his battalion. He had been assigned to rebuild his company to battle strength after heavy losses. His battalion of 1,800 men had been reduced to just 262.

And that’s all I know about Captain Bill Muir. A Kansas hometown boy. A native son. An American hero like hundreds of thousands of American heroes who gave their lives in service so that we could be a free people.

This is the story of a young man of 26 with hopes and dreams like all young men. A life of promise cut short. A love lost but not forgotten. But it’s also the story of a hero. Of a young man who understood his role in keeping freedom in the world and in ending tyranny.

Bill had dreams. Dreams we are challenged to live out because we are the fortunate ones left to enjoy the freedom he died for.

And now I challenge you to keep our soldiers’ stories alive. Those of you who have served, you know stories. Tell them. Tell them to your kids and your grandkids so that no American who made that sacrifice will be forgotten.

Memorial Day is about reconciliation. It is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. We remember them and their families. We remember those who never came home and are still missing.

Cleta kept Bill’s memory alive for decades for me to tell you. To remind us of the price of war and the enormous debt we owe to each and every one of these fallen heroes.

I pray that God continues to bless each of you and our great nation.

Ann Mah is a former Kansas state representative and is currently a candidate for representative of the 54th District, which encompasses portions of Osage, Shawnee and Douglas counties. This article first appeared in Ann’s email newsletter and is republished here with permission.

Contact us: Osage County News | P.O. Box 62, Lyndon, KS 66451 | [email protected] | 785-828-4994 | Powered by Osage County, Kansas